New aircraft production down, avionics upgrade funding steady
Budget cuts and sequestration have reduced funding for new aircraft platforms but there are still pockets of funding for avionics and flight decks in existing military aircraft. In this Q&A with Troy Brunk, Vice President and General Manager of Airborne Solutions for Rockwell Collins Government Systems, he discusses his outlook for military avionics technology, what pilots want avionics technology to do for them, and the situational-awareness benefits of synthetic vision technology. Edited excerpts follow.
MIL-EMBEDDED: Please provide a brief description of your group’s role within Rockwell Collins such as key technology areas, platforms, etc.
BRUNK: From the military side of Rockwell Collins, Airborne Solutions addresses avionics and flight deck solutions for military fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft platforms including fighters, bombers, trainers, tanker, transport, special mission, and unmanned aircraft. When I say avionics, I refer to traditional large-format, high-resolution cockpit displays, head-worn displays, advanced mission computers, and highly integrated navigation and flight-control systems. In addition, we provide transponders, traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS), satellite communication (SATCOM) terminals, and weather radar. We address the full gamut for the military avionics world.
We also support commercial rotary-wing avionics applications as there is much similarity between these platforms and military rotary-wing platforms in terms of environmental requirements.
MIL-EMBEDDED: The Department of Defense (DoD) released its FY 2016 budget request this month with an increase in overall funding, almost a reverse trend from the last few years. That said, how do you see the funding outlook for military aircraft and – as a direct result, avionics systems – within the DoD? Is activity still strong even with the budget-constrained environment of the last few years?
BRUNK: From a macro perspective, what we’re seeing and have been seeing is an overall reduction of new aircraft in production over the next five years plus, aside from key platforms like the F-35, KC-46, and Long Range Strike. However, we do see in the budget a strong commitment to recapitalize platforms such as Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), T-X, etc. By and large there are still opportunities out there, but with the fewer number of platforms and restarts we have to make sure we are capturing the key platforms.
While new production is down, there remain funding pockets within the budget for avionics upgrades and retrofits to bring new capabilities to fielded aircraft and meet other needs such as additional mission computing and to manage obsolescence challenges. Avionics remains a strong part of the aircraft Research, Development, Test, & Evaluation (RDT&E), procurement, and Operations & Maintenance (O&M) budgets because avionics systems are an integral part of the aircraft’s mission capabilities.
MIL-EMBEDDED: Please provide an example of current avionics programs Rockwell Collins is involved in for rotary, fixed, and unmanned aircraft.
BRUNK: For rotary platforms, our avionics technology is on the MH-47G/60M, the CH-47F Chinooks, the UH-60 Black Hawk platforms, MH-53E, and the new VH-92 Presidential helicopter platform. On the civil side, we supply avionics into many OEMs with strong positions at Sikorsky and Agusta Westland helicopters.
Regarding fixed-wing platforms, we have avionics systems on the KC-46, the C-130, KC-390, and AWACS. We also are positioned well on fourth-generation fighters such as the F-18 and Eurofighter. On the F-35 our real focus has been on the helmet-mounted-display (HMD) system that we developed in a joint venture with Elbit Systems.
We are also looking at leveraging some of the F-35 technology we developed for the HMD, such as digital night vision and data links for use on fourth-generation fighters.
For unmanned aircraft, we’re delivering flight-control systems and communication systems for platforms such as Black Jack, Shadow, Grey Eagle, and others. We are also continuing to assess what requirements need to be met for civil unmanned aircraft. There is a growing emphasis for unmanned aircraft to be able to operate in the same space as manned aircraft, which will present opportunities for new technology that we provide.
MIL-EMBEDDED: What are the key technological trends/areas you are focusing on to meet current capability requirements?
BRUNK: Consumer electronics is the driver in electronics miniaturization and improvements in display technology. We continually focus on how to leverage the consumer-electronics advancements into the aerospace and defense sector in a way that adds value for our customers without burdening them with the challenges of obsolescence due to rapidly evolving technology. A couple of specific areas are improved optical performance in our head-worn and head-down displays and multicore processing.
There is also a focus on providing enhanced vision in degraded visual environments by putting sensors on board aircraft to fuse the data coming into the avionics system. This will give the pilot better situational awareness in brownout conditions and unimproved landing zones. Rockwell Collins won the first of three phases in a U.S. Army program two years ago to develop the Degraded Visual Environment Pilotage System (DVEPS) for the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) helicopters. Rockwell Collins will be leveraging its synthetic vision technology, which they developed for use in business-jet cockpits to improve pilots’ situational awareness. The program goal is to develop, qualify, and field a DVE solution by 2018.
We are focused on fusing other sensor data such as radar and lidar to create an actual image on the pilot’s display. This will enable pilots to avoid obstacles or obstructions on the ground such as a ditch or other obstruction they otherwise could not see with the naked eye due to environmental conditions.
MIL-EMBEDDED: How much of what you develop for commercial avionics applications do you then leverage for military applications? Please cite an example.
BRUNK: Much of avionics development starts on the commercial side and then is leveraged over to military platforms. We leverage significant investments in technology and products from our Commercial Systems business into all of our military markets. The level of reuse varies by the program and the program specific requirements. For example, for the Embraer KC-390 program, we started with the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion integrated avionics system for the Embraer Legacy 500 business jet and added the necessary capabilities to meet the additional military mission requirements. Another example of commercial reuse is for the KC-46 program, where Rockwell Collins leveraged the Boeing 787 large-format display system and added the KC-46 mission features to enable greater mission situational awareness.
We are also adapting our commercial synthetic vision system that was developed for commercial business-jet applications for use on helicopters in both civil and military markets to enable safer flight in brownout and adverse weather conditions (See image on pages 14-15).
We also have taken our Pro Line Fusion commercial flight-management system (FMS) and have put it into ground control stations for [unmanned aircraft systems] (UASs), enabling operators to control the aircraft from a civil-certified FMS.
MIL-EMBEDDED: It seems every piece of electronic equipment is getting smaller – handheld computers, GPS devices, etc. How are reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements affecting new avionics systems? What are the tradeoffs with smaller tech?
BRUNK: What miniaturization has enabled is enhanced computer processing and display technology with each generation of commercial chip displays. This enables more integration in the same footprint – or same SWaP constraints we are used to – bringing in a lot more features such as synthetic vision and enhanced navigation in the same space, essentially. The new capabilities come in at a fast pace, but the hard part is being able to determine when to take advantage of the new technology for introduction into a program of record or block insertion perspective.
That’s just the way the military environment works. You can have those capability enhancements, but might not have the opportunity to integrate them as they are not addressed in the DoD’s budget.
It’s also not just about putting more capability in the same footprint. Reducing the SWaP constraints of the footprint is important as well. For example, anything you can do to reduce the SWaP on an HMD can provide direct benefits such as reduced weight on the HMD and in the helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft itself. For avionics, anything you can do to take weight out at a system level is an advantage. Sometimes we reduce the weight of avionics and combine other functions’ overall weight benefit. There are tradeoffs based on what space you are addressing and what a particular end user wants.
MIL-EMBEDDED:What feedback do you get from military pilots regarding new avionics features?
BRUNK: On our commercial side, we bring in pilots who use our avionics system into focus groups and discuss their needs and challenges and have started doing this on our military side. We are directly applying what we learned on the civilian side from commercial-pilot focus groups as we address new avionics systems.
In general the feedback we get from pilots is that they want improved situational awareness – eyes out and not down – more intuitive menu selection, and more information available more readily to help reduce pilot workload. They also are driving us toward a larger-format display where synthetic vision is part of the head-up display.
Where military rotary-wing pilots differ from fixed is in their need for more sensors that enable them to safely land in unknown landing zones. They also traditionally fly lower and land different, which gives them a few unique needs from a sensor and information standpoint. We are developing synthetic vision technology to help those pilots navigate in low flying conditions, to sense wires and obstacles, and then fuse that information on synthetic displays.
MIL-EMBEDDED: Rockwell Collins was a key player in the creation of the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Consortium. Please describe your role and how the initiative is progressing within the DoD community.
BRUNK: What FACE really does is standardize interfaces that are more widely adopted and that enable reuse of software for military avionics systems through a common, open-architecture system design. We have been a big supporter of the FACE Consortium and one of three founding companies at the sponsor level and continue to be active in tactical and technical working groups. We are all in on FACE. It will help the end user achieve their vision of taking avionics software capability and applying it across multiple avionics platforms. Software and hardware roadmaps in the future will be competitively structured to lower costs and FACE will enable that.
FACE is similar to what Rockwell Collins and the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command did years ago with the development of the Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) for rotary-wing helicopters, enabling capability reuse. FACE just takes that and expands it in a more defined standard that enables use across multiple avionics platforms and is not vendor-specific. Standards will enable avionics software tools and applications to move from one open system to another without having to spend time and money developing a new application each time. The DoD can’t afford to spend new development dollars on every new platform for avionics software. It is a matter of enabling commonality to reduce development cost in the long run in avionics systems.
MIL-EMBEDDED: Looking forward, what disruptive technology or innovation will be a game changer for military avionics designs? Predict the future.
BRUNK: Anything that enables better situational awareness, such as more heads-up display functionality like goggle displays or digital night vision, better flight control in adverse weather conditions. Anything we do to reduce pilot workload, enabling a better environment for pilot performance and decision making will be key – from embedded training features to autonomous systems. It’s not just what information you see but how you see it that will determine what display solutions win out over the next decade.